A quick look back at some recent posts, in light of subsequent events:
1. Regarding Hillary’s trip to Moscow to clinch the arms control deal. It’s not over till it’s over, but it looks like her team did read the tea leaves properly. If so, then props to the negotiators. If Obama gets to sign it on the one-year anniversary of his Prague speech, that will heighten its symbolic value.
2. Does the health care win enhance Obama's foreign policy clout? Andrew Sullivan has raised some good points on this issue, see here and here. I'll concede that getting health care done will free up more of Obama's time and energy to devote to foreign policy. It may also make the White House a bit more Bolshie about taking on domestic opposition to its foreign policy agenda. But even if that’s the case, I still think prospects for major foreign policy achievements are slim. Why? Because even if Obama has more free time, he’s gotta worry most about the economy over the next year or two. And as I said in my original post, none of the big foreign policy issues are easy to resolve, and the foreign opposition he must win over isn't likely to be swayed by the fact that the adminstration managed to get 220 members of the president's own party to support a bill that was heavily laden with political compromises. I'm not dissing the domestic achievement, mind you, just skeptical that it gives you that much more leverage abroad.
3. Did General Petraeus say that there was a link between U.S. support for Israel, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and our standing elsewhere in the region? Phil Klein at The American Spectator claims that Petraeus is denying he said any of the things previously attributed to him in recent weeks, and is walking back from his own testimony (i.e., prepared statement) to the Senate Armed Services Committee. But if you look carefully at what Petraeus told the Senators, it’s clear that he recognizes that there is a link (which is what his prepared statement said, in rather uncontroversial language. Consider his response to a question by Sen. John McCain:
We keep a very close eye on what goes on there [in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip], because of the impact that it has, obviously, on that part of CENTCOM that is the Arab world, if you will. And in fact, we’ve urged at various times that this is a critical component. ... Again, clearly, the tensions, the issues and so forth have an enormous effect. They set the strategic context within which we operate in the Central Command area of responsibility. My thrust has generally been, literally, just to say -- to encourage that process that can indeed get that recognition that you talked about, and indeed get a sense of progress moving forward in the overall peace process, because of the effect that it has on particularly what I think you would term the moderate governments in our area."
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said something similar today too (HT Spencer Ackerman). Of course, what they are saying is pretty mild, unsurprising stuff; it's just the sort of thing that didn't used to get uttered by senior officials.
Matt Duss at the Center for American Progress pokes holes in Klein's revisionism, see here.
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To be completely honest, I don’t know what to make of the 15 point peace plan offered by Afghan warlord/insurgent/former U.S. ally/Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but my first thoughts are two-fold.
First, this isn’t an offer Karzai or NATO will or should accept. It calls for foreign troops to start withdrawing this summer (not gonna happen), and that “foreign fighters” (e.g., non-Afghan allies of the Taliban, or al Qaeda) "will not remain" after NATO et al leaves. Hard for me to imagine NATO leaving without more convincing assurances that al Qaeda will not be welcome back on Afghan soil.
Second, the fact that the offer was made at all does strike me as significant, as do reports that this initiative has tacit backing from interested foreign powers (e.g., U.S.) The BBC reports that “there is a growing recognition, both within Afghanistan and from its foreign partners, that insurgents have to be part of any peace settlement and that military operations alone will not be enough to bring peace to the country." That sounds right to me.
As for Hekmatyr, he has the reputation of being a pragmatist and he may be trying to position himself at a moment when he thinks the contest is shifting from insurgency to negotiations. Whatever his motives, this is a process we ought to encourage. In the best case, the Afghans negotiate some sort of peace agreement and power-sharing arrangement that stabilizes the country and allows economic development efforts to continue, but also allows us to get the hell out. In the worst case, we get a flawed arrangement that still gives the United States a fig leaf for disengagement, at which point Afghanistan falls apart again.
Since I don’t think the latter outcome would be disastrous from the U.S. perspective (though it is obviously not desirable from a purely humanitarian perspective), I’m open to a pretty wide-range of alternative outcomes, provided that they reflect an Afghan consensus. But like I said, this is just my initial reaction, and I may change my mind after I read more and ponder further.
One apparent area of agreement among virtually all public participants in the recent debate over U.S.-Israeli relations is the importance of confronting Iran. Secretary of State Clinton made it a theme of her remarks to the AIPAC policy conference, as did PM Netanyahu, and interestingly enough, it's implicit in General David Petraeus's comment to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict complicates U.S. efforts to forge effective alliances with other Middle East states.
Add to that a recent column by Michael Hirsh of Newsweek, who quotes an unnamed U.S. official saying that the real reason Obama went ballistic over the continued Israeli intransigence regarding settlement building is that this policy is undermining U.S. efforts to deal with Iran.
In short, what you see here is an emerging consensus that Iran is the problem, and we've got to address Israel-Palestine in order to focus everyone’s attention on that. For the record, some of the things I've written are consistent with that view too.
But one word of caution, courtesy of Trita Parsi. Trying to push Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to then go after Iran has one obvious downside: it gives Tehran an enormous incentive to do whatever it can to derail the admittedly fragile peace process. As Parsi shows in his prize-winning book Treacherous Alliance, this is what happened during the 1990s, after the Bush administration excluded Iran from the Madrid Conference and after the Clinton administration had adopted the policy of "dual containment." Iran had never paid that much attention to the Palestinian issue before then, but it started ramping up support for Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups as a way to pay the United States back and to undermine U.S. efforts to isolate them.
So instead of announcing (or hinting) that we are interested in Israeli-Palestinian peace primarily so we can go after Iran, we ought to emphasize that we are interested in peace there because it’s the right thing to do (i.e., better for us, better for Israel, and obviously better for the Palestinians). At the same time, we should continue patient, realistic (and maybe even more imaginative) efforts to improve relations with Iran, so that they don’t have greater incentives to play the spoiler. Ditto Syria.
If we play our cards right, we might even generate something of a virtuous circle; where various parties with whom we now have disagreements begin to realize that they ought to deal now, lest we mend fences elsewhere and leave them with a weaker bargaining position down the road. But notice that will require a far-sighted, patient, and coherent approach to the region, and not just a single-minded focus on one particular problem.
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Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no.
As others have noted before, journalists and commentators find it easy to rely on an essentially narrative style of analysis. It’s easy to tell a story largely in terms of day-to-day events and process, and to frame it all in terms of the rise or fall of different personalities. First Obama can do no wrong, then he’s a failed president, then suddenly he bounces back and is a transformational figure once again. Or Rahm is in, then he’s out, then’s he bigger than ever. Pelosi is dismissed, then she’s hated, then she’s ineffectual, and then suddenly she’s vindicated and revered. Analyzing politics in this way is certainly exciting, but it's not very informative. It also creates the sense that political fortunes are always swinging wildly back and forth, instead of stepping back and looking for the larger structural forces that are shaping events and constraining choices.
My sense is that yesterday’s House vote isn’t going to translate into a lot of new political clout, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Passing the health-care bill may mean that Obama doesn’t need coddle quite as many congressmen on foreign-policy issues they might care strongly about (such as trade policy or the Middle East), and that might give him a bit more flexibility to do what’s in the national interest. But overall, I don’t think yesterday’s vote in the House will have much impact at all.
To begin with, Obama’s No. 1 concern still has to be the U.S. economy. The Democrats are going to lose seats in the midterm elections, which will make pushing domestic reform efforts much harder. It might be tempting to focus on foreign policy, therefore, except that everyone knows Obama’s re-election hinges largely on getting Americans back to work. If the economy and especially employment turn around by 2011 he’s golden; if it doesn’t, he’s in trouble.
More importantly, there isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011.
Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons. And somehow I don’t think those drug lords at war with the Mexican government are going to go out of business because 32 million uninsured Americans are about to get coverage. And even if Obama does seize the moment to push Middle East peace talks -- a risky step in an election year -- only a cock-eyed optimist would expect a deal in short order.
So I’d ignore any stories you see about how this "historic legislative victory" gives the president new clout, greater momentum, or an enhanced ability to advance his foreign-policy agenda. Today’s euphoria will pass quickly, opponents at home will regroup, and enemies abroad don’t care. Bottom line: Obama's foreign-policy in box will look about the same at the end of the first term as it did when he took office.
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Is this "Be Rude to U.S. Diplomats Month?" First, the Netanyahu government embarrasses Joe Biden during his visit to Israel by announcing it will build 1600 new homes in disputed East Jerusalem. Next, the Russian government welcomes Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Moscow with the announcement that it intends to complete the long-delayed Bushehr power reactor in Iran this summer. Clinton told a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov it "would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians," but Lavrov confirmed that Russia was going ahead anyway.
The Bushehr reactor has been a thorny issue between the United States and Russia since the 1990s, although it actually has little to do with Iran's nuclear enrichment program and has always been something of a red herring. But it was hardly a friendly gesture for Moscow to make this announcement during her visit, unless they were trying to score some cheap bargaining points. And it made me wonder: where are everyone's manners? Diplomacy doesn't always have to be, well-diplomatic -- but this sort of gratuitous slap is both petty and counter-productive.
The two situations aren't identical, of course, given that Israel is a close ally and the recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. aid, and Russia is a country with whom U.S. relations are more competitive. One would therefore expect this sort of thing from Moscow but not from Jerusalem. In both cases, however, the United States should make it clear that it doesn't appreciate being dissed in this fashion.
To its credit, the Obama administration has shown what Woodrow Wilson called "the self-restraint of a truly great nation, which knows its own power and scorns to misuse it." They haven't over-reacted to every perceived slight, and press conferences with foreign representatives don't have to be a complete love-fest. But every now and then, the United States has to demonstrate that this sort of thing has a price tag: the more that other states want from us, the more respect they ought to show. It's about that simple.
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I see that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Moscow to clinch a new arms control agreement with Russia. I hope she succeeds, although the details of the treaty are probably less significant than people think. Both sides will be left with plenty of nuclear warheads, so the core strategic situation between the two countries won’t be affected very much. An agreement might help both sides save some money and will make each look like it at least trying to fulfill its long-standing obligations in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Non-nuclear signatories agreed not to get nukes, but Article VI commits signatories -- including the United States and USSR -- to make good faith efforts at nuclear disarmament).
What I’ll be watching is whether Hillary can close the deal. In general, you shouldn’t send the secretary of state or the president to a big-time negotiation unless you’re pretty confident that the deal is ready and all that’s left are some minor details that will be easy to work out. You might also send the secretary if you needed someone with real status to make a final push, but you’ve got to be ready to walk away if the other side won’t play ball. Otherwise, your top people look ineffective, or even worse, they look desperate for a deal.
What worries me is the Obama team’s track record on this front. It was a mistake to send Obama off to shill for Chicago’s bid to host the Olympic games, for example, partly because he’s got better things to do, but mostly because the gambit failed and made him look ineffectual. Ditto his attendance at the Copenhagen summit on climate change. Attending the summit was a nice way to signal his commitment to the issue, but it was obvious beforehand that no deal was going to be reached and his time could have been better spent elsewhere.
So I’m hoping that Secretary Clinton’s subordinates have done their homework, and that the trip to Moscow won't increase her carbon footprint to no good purpose.
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I've been fighting the temptation to weigh in on the current "crisis" between the United States and Israel -- Lord knows I've already said a lot on this issue over the past few years -- but a few comments are in order.
As one would expect, hard-line groups in the Israel lobby like AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, JINSA and WINEP are now trying to pin the blame for the rift on the Obama administration. They want to portray Obama as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state, in order to force him to back off the same way he did during last summer's confrontation with Netanyahu over a settlement freeze.
This view has it exactly backwards. Whatever you might think of its strategy or its tactics, the Obama administration has been genuinely committed to achieving a two-state solution before it is too late. This polichy is not an act of hostility toward Israel; on the contrary, it is an act of extraordinary friendship for Obama to keep this difficult item on an already overcrowded agenda. As former prime minister Ehud Olmert and current defense minister Ehud Barak have warned: If the two-state solution fails, the Palestinians will be occupied forever and Israel will become an apartheid state. Instead of helping Israel drive itself off a cliff -- as George W. Bush did -- the Obama administration is trying to prevent that disastrous outcome. And because Obama's team understands that the relentless expansion of Israel's illegal settlements is making a two-state solution increasingly difficult to realize, they believe that a halt to settlement building is a key part of a successful peace process. That includes East Jerusalem, by the way, whose annexation by Israel in 1967 is regarded as illegal by the rest of the world, including the United States.
Achieving a two-state solution is obviously in America's strategic interest as well, because it would remove one of the major sources of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world. The vast majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda and its murderous methods, for example, but they share its harsh views about U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A two-state solution won't solve all of our problems in the region, of course, but it would make a lot of them easier to address. It's clear that the U.S. military, which now has a lot of experience in the region, thinks so too. As Centcom commander General David Petraeus told the Armed Services Committee earlier today:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of operational responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
A two state solution is also the best guarantee of Israel's long-term future. By showing real backbone this time and explaining to the American people why his approach is right, Obama could be a true friend to the Jewish state.
Netanyahu, AIPAC and the rest of the "status quo" lobby don't get that, and neither do narrow-minded politicians like Joe Lieberman or John McCain. They seem to think it is okay for Israel to keep expanding its control over Palestinian lands and that the United States should back Israel's actions no matter what it does. When disputes arise they should be handled privately, because, as Lieberman put it, the U.S. and Israel are "family." Not true, of course: the United States and Israel are separate countries whose interests are not always identical, and sometimes it makes sense to air those differences in public. The "Christian Zionists" are even worse: They think Israel should control these lands forever in order to fulfill their wacky interpretation of Old Testament prophecy and bring the "end-times" closer. Never mind what happens to Israel itself in the process.
In fact, these people are false friends of Israel, because their recommended course of action will keep it on its current dangerous path. So when you hear them defend the special relationship, or when they accuse Obama or Mitchell or Biden or Clinton of putting unwarranted pressure on Israel, ask them what their long-term solution is. Do they think Israel should control all the territory that once was Mandate Palestine? If so, do they favor a one-party democracy in which Jews and Arabs get equal voting rights, or an apartheid state in which Jews rule over stateless Palestinians? Or are they in favor of ethnic cleansing, the same way that former House Speaker Dick Armey was? Or perhaps they support Netanyahu's bizarre version of "two-states," where Israel keeps all of Jerusalem and confines the Palestinians to a handful of dismembered Bantustans under Israeli control? Those are the only alternatives to a viable two-state solution, and if you don't like them, then you should give Obama credit for his efforts and hope that he holds his ground this time. Because time really is running out.
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It's been a eventful week for those of us who care about Israeli-Palestinian issues, and especially those who would like the United States to exert a more positive role in resolving this seemingly intractable conflict. (If you haven't done so already, be sure to read Mark Perry's remarkable piece on another part of the FP website.)
I'll be posting a comment on recent events later today, but first I wanted to alert you to the official release of a joint product in which I am grateful to have been involved. For the past several years, I've been fortunate to participate in an informal study group on Middle East politics here in Boston, which met on a regular basis to discuss events in the region and ponder what might be done about them. The other members of the "Boston Study Group" were Prof. Lenore Martin of Emmanuel College, Prof. Herbert Kelman of Harvard's Department of Psychology and Social Relations, Prof. Henry Steiner from Harvard Law School, Prof. Harvey Cox from the Harvard Divinity School, Prof. Everett Mendelsohn from Harvard's History of Science department, Alan Berger of the Boston Globe, and Prof. Augustus Richard Norton from Boston University. Each member of the group has been studying these issues for many years, and several have been intimately involved in peace efforts for decades.
Although we didn't agree on every issue, every member of the group has been a strong proponent of a two-state solution and that conviction gave our efforts a certain unity of purpose. I learned an enormous amount from our discussions, and the camaraderie that developed within the group was wonderful. I'm grateful to the other members for including me in their deliberations, and for the many nuggets of wisdom that I gained from each of them.
Of course, given that this was a group of academics or professional writers, it was probably inevitable that we would eventually try to publish something. Our original idea was to produce a short primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and each of us drafted short papers on different aspects of the issue. We discussed each paper extensively and each author revised their original drafts in light of the group's comments.
In the end, however, we decided it would be more helpful to draft a joint statement reaffirming the need for "two states for two peoples." Our hope was to lend additional support for President Obama's efforts to promote a two-state solution before it is too late, and events of the past week merely underscore the need for decisive action. I'm pleased to report that both the joint statement and the supporting background papers have now been posted on the website of the Foreign Policy Association, under the title "Israel and Palestine: Two States for Two Peoples -- If Not Now, When?" You can download it here.
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Given his loquacious style, it's probably not a good idea to parse Joe Biden's words too closely. Nonetheless, one comment he made during a speech in Tel Aviv yesterday caught my eye. Among other things, Biden told his audience "The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons" (my emphasis).
The interesting word in that otherwise unsurprising sentence is the verb "prevent." No, I don't think the vice president was signaling that the United States is going to take military action (i.e., to engage in a preventive military strike). Rather, I thought the use of that word revealed the underlying mindset that still pervades a lot of national-security thinking. If there's something undesirable happening out there, U.S. foreign policy mavens immediately assume that Washington must to take action to prevent, halt, reverse, negate or stop it. Implicit in that choice of words is the assumption that it is our responsibility to do this and that our actions are the essential ingredient to success. We are the "indispensable nation," to use Madeleine Albright's infamous phrase, and nothing good can happen if we don't will it.
This is a rhetoric that takes American exceptionalism for granted, and it conveys a sense of unilateralism that one normally associates with Bush and the neoconservatives. This formulation also marginalizes and discounts Iran's own motivations and decisions: it is up to us to prevent them from getting the bomb and they have no say in the matter.
To see this more clearly, consider the other verbs that Biden might have used. He could have said "the United States is determined to persuade Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons." This formulation doesn't deny the United States an active role or preclude the use of carrots and sticks to achieve the desired outcome. But instead of declaring that we are determined to decide this outcome more-or-less on our own, it leaves open the possibility of convincing Iran that it would be better off forgoing weaponization. (I can make a pretty good case for that option, although I obviously don't know if Tehran would be convinced by it). Plenty of other potential nuclear powers have ultimately decided not to join the nuclear club, and we ought to be exploring ways to encourage similar thinking in Tehran.
And it's not simply a matter of ramping up pressure, because tightening the screws just increases Tehran's desire to have a more reliable deterrent.
This slightly different formulation acknowledges that whether Iran eventually gets nuclear weapons or not is at least partly up to them, and it treats diplomacy not as a step we have to take in order to persuade others to support sanctions (or to lay the groundwork for "kinetic action" later on), but as a genuine option that may not work but deserves to be pursued with real purpose. Bottom line: I wish the vice president had used a different verb.
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I was out-of-town giving a guest lecture when Vice-President Biden arrived in Israel, so I didn’t have a chance to blog about the interesting reception he received. Biden is well-known as a great friend of Israel, and his objective was to smooth over the recent frictions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government and to jump-start indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. So Biden began his visit by reaffirming America’s “absolute total unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.”
His reward was to get blind-sided by the announcement that Israel's Interior Ministry had authorized the construction of another 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem. (Israel annexed E. Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War, but this seizure is not recognized by the international community -- including the United States). Given that the Palestinians hope to locate their capital there if a two-state solution is ever reached, this announcment was -- to put it mildly -- not a friendly gesture.
Aides to Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu have claimed that this announcement was an oversight and that Bibi was not aware that his own Interior Minister was going to make it. I don’t believe that -- and neither does Biden’s staff -- but even if it's true, it's really a secondary issue. Netanyahu did not disavow the announcement or reverse the decision (which is not surprising, given that he has long supported continued Israeli expansion in E. Jerusalem). Moreover, Ha’aretz reported today that the 1,600 homes are just a drop in the bucket, and that the Israel government is planning to build 50,000 (!) homes there over the next few years. In short, the announcement was either an attempt to derail the talks before they get started or a blatant gesture of contempt for the Obama administration itself.
You can read various reactions to the brouhaha here, here, and here. I'll confine myself to three comments.
First, why should anyone be surprised by this sort of "in-your-face" reception? The Netanyahu government has been stonewalling Obama ever since the Cairo speech, and so far the only price they have paid was some tut-tutting that they were being "unhelpful." Some observers used to maintain that Israeli prime ministers got in trouble at home if they didn’t get along with the U.S. president, but Bibi's popularity seems to have been enhanced by his spats with Obama and Mitchell. If Biden was expecting a love-fest when he arrived, he just hasn’t been paying attention.
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We've all had the experience of suddenly realizing what we should have said, but long after the opportunity to say it has passed. (On Seinfeld, George Costanza was once obsessed with this problem). Anyway, it happened to me last week, during a seminar with Special Representative for Afghanistan/Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, prior to his public appearance at the Institute of Politics Forum here.
During the discussion, I asked Holbrooke a less-than-inspired question and he gave a perfectly reasonable if not especially illuminating answer. (It was an off-the-record session so I can't tell you what I asked or what he said. But trust me, it wasn't a very good question). And then an hour later, as I was traveling home, I realized what I should have asked him.
Some of you may recall Holbrooke's remark at a conference in DC last August, when he defined success in Afghanistan with "the Supreme Court test: we'll know it when we see it." (The reference is to Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of pornography). That's a bit vague, as several critics noted at the time. But it raises the question that I wish I had asked: How would Holbrooke identify or define failure? In other words, what developments or events in Afghanistan and Pakistan would lead him, in his best professional judgment, to advise President Obama that our efforts there were not working and that it was time to disengage?
To ask the question is not to hope for an unsuccessful outcome; or even to suggest that one thinks failure is likely. But unless we are willing to stay in Afghanistan forever no matter what, we need to be as alert for signs that our efforts aren't working as we are in looking for signs of success.
I missed my chance, but maybe a reader out there will get the chance to pose the question down the road. I'd love to hear what he says.
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In the run-up to the war in Iraq, a critical moment came when moderates and liberals joined forces with the neoconservatives who had been pushing for war since the late 1990s. The poster child for this process was Kenneth Pollack, whose pro-war book The Threatening Storm (written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations) gave reluctant hawks a respectable fig-leaf for backing the invasion.
Is a similar process occurring today with respect to Iran? A possible sign of slippage is a recent Foreign Affairs article (and accompanying Washington Post op-ed) by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh (also of the CFR). Lindsay and Takeyh are well-known centrists who now seem at least partly infected by some of the alarmism about Iran that the neoconservatives have been trumpeting for years. Although their two articles sound a somewhat skeptical note about preventive war-they admit that "a preventive attack might not end Iran's nuclear ambitions"-they recommend keeping all options "on the table" and in general depict the Islamic Republic as a looming threat to all that is Right and Proper. Their central lesson: the United States had better get serious about preparing for a military response to a wide array of possible Iranian actions.
Lindsay and Takeyh reach this conclusion by incorporating a series of worst-case assumptions and by employing the familiar alarmist rhetoric that has been a staple of hawkish commentary for decades. Despite some significant qualifications (some of which contradict their central point), the overall impression is ominous, and likely to strengthen the hand of those who are in favor of an ever-tougher approach to Tehran.
For starters, the very first line of their WaPo op-ed describes Iran as "relentlessly moving toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." They offer no concrete evidence that this is the case, however, and it is worth remembering that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded Iran had no active nuclear weapons program has yet to be rescinded. Iran may be trying to build a working nuclear weapon, but there is as yet no clear sign that a definitive decision to go nuclear has been made. Of course, so long as Iran has the capacity to enrich uranium, it is by definition "moving toward" having the potential to build a weapon at some point in the future. Insofar as its nuclear program goes back decades, however, it doesn't seem to be moving very fast. Unfortunately, using words like "relentlessly" and portraying the decision to get a bomb as a done deal makes Tehran sound especially dangerous and further devalues any possibility of a diplomatic deal that might head off weaponization.
Next, they argue that Iran "views nuclear weapons as the means to regional preeminence" and warn that a nuclear shield "would give Iran freedom to project its power in the Middle East." They believe Iran "would not be subtle about brandishing the nuclear card" and predict it "would probably test U.S. resolve early." Indeed, they think America will face a "momentous credibility crisis" if it fails to stop Iran from getting the bomb, warning that "even close US allies would doubt Washington's security guarantees."
Are you scared yet? All these ominous claims might be true, but neither the Foreign Affairs article or the WaPo op-ed contain any evidence to back them up. But Lindsay and Takeyh are just getting started. They also think Iran might increase its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, do more to subvert the Gulf sheikhdoms, demand that these states evict U.S. troops, and maybe even give nuclear technology to other countries. And if that isn't enough, they invoke the old nightmare that Iran might "give fissile material to a terrorist group."
Of course, alert readers with good memories will notice that these are the same arguments that pro-war hawks made about Iraq. And though each of the warnings is hedged in various ways-i.e., they don't say Iran will do these things, only that it might-the cumulative effect of all these scary scenarios is to suggest that an Iranian bomb would be major turning point in world history (and not in a good way).
So what should the U.S. do in response? According to Lindsay and Takeyh, the United States needs to draw several lines in the sand: 1) no initiation of conventional warfare, 2) no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material, or technologies, and 3) no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. If Iran does any of these things, the United States should be ready to respond "by any and all means necessary." If we aren't ready to retaliate, they write, "the damage created by Iran's going nuclear could become catastrophic.
Time to chill, guys. Iran is an important security issue, and the United States should take appropriate steps to maintain a balance of power in the region. Unfortunately, the drum-beat of alarmism that pervades their article-and even more in the op-ed version-is both misleading and possibly counterproductive.
First, their depiction of a swaggering Iran armed with nuclear weapons grossly overstates Iran's actual capabilities. According to the IISS Military Balance, Iran's military budget in 2008 was around $9.5 billion dollars (less than 2 percent of U.S. defense outlays) and Iran's actual capabilities reflects this paltry investment. It has no conventional power-projection capabilities, outdated air, naval and armored forces, and primitive electronic warfare capabilities. Iran's population and economic potential raise the possibility that it might one day be the dominant power in the Gulf, but it is nowhere near that capacity now. Getting a nuclear weapon won't change that fact, because nuclear weapons are only useful for deterrence and confer little positive leverage over others. (Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this latter point in the Foreign Affairs version, but if they genuinely believe this, then many of their other arguments are irrelevant).
Second, Lindsey and Takeyh misunderstand the sources of U.S. credibility. The United States has been actively engaged in Persian Gulf security for decades, because Persian Gulf oil is a vital U.S. national interest. That vital interest won't change no matter what happens in Iran, which is why our local allies can count on us to back them up. The reason is simple: it is in our own self-interest. And the good news is that Iran almost certainly knows this too.
Third, they overstate Iran's capacity to subvert or blackmail its neighbors. Iran's capacity to export its version of Islamic fundamentalism has declined steadily since the 1979 revolution (and it wasn't very great back then), and the regime is a far less attractive model today than it was under the more charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. The brutal crackdown following the elections last summer has undoubtedly tarnished Tehran's appeal even more. Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this point as well in the long version of their article, but they fail to draw the obvious conclusion: if Iran cannot subvert its neighbors, then the danger it poses is modest and their article didn't need to be written.
Furthermore, a nuclear Iran could not blackmail its neighbors (or compel them to expel U.S. forces), because it could not carry out a nuclear threat without facing devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation. The mighty Soviet Union could not blackmail any US allies during in the Cold War; indeed, it wasn't even able to blackmail weak and neutral countries. American leaders have found it equally difficult to translate our vast nuclear arsenal into meaningful political leverage. Yet Lindsay and Takeyh imply that Iran could perform this miracle today, even though it is far weaker. They never explain why or how, however; it's just another convenient bogeyman.
Fourth, fears that Iran will give weapons or technology to terrorists are even more far-fetched. One cannot rule out the possibility that Iran might share nuclear technology with a few other governments (much as Pakistan did), but there are good reasons to doubt it. Among other things, it is hard to believe that Iran would want to see more countries get nuclear weapons, especially in its own region.
More importantly, Iran is not going to give fissile material to terrorists. Having labored long and hard to acquire an enrichment capability, would any regime just hand weapons-grade uranium over to extremists over whom it had no control? Giving fissile material to terrorists is a potentially suicidal act, and Iran's leaders show every sign of wanting to retain power permanently and to live as long as they can. They could never be sure the hand-off would not be detected and that they would not be blamed (and punished) for whatever the terrorists did. There's no sign that any of Iran's leaders has a death wish, which is why they won't be giving any bombs away.
Fifth, Lindsay and Takeyh's redlines are too vague and elastic. The United States is already committed to opposing conventional aggression in the Gulf region (unless we're the ones doing it, of course), and U.S. leaders have already made it clear that they will respond to blackmail or nuclear use as well. As Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge, the United State remains a powerful presence in the Gulf region today and will stay there long after the withdrawal from Iraq is completed. In short, the essential ingredients of containment are already in place.
In particular, threatening retaliation against "subversive activities" risks either an unnecessary war or a further challenge to US credibility. For example, many well-informed observers believe Iran has substantial influence in Iraq today, and may be actively trying to affect the outcome of the March 7 elections. Is this the sort of "subversive activity" that should trigger a US response? How about a single shipment of mortars to Hezbollah, or the capture of an Iranian intelligence agent operating in Bahrain or Dubai? In a world where the United States, Israel, and plenty of other states are conducting covert, "subversive" operations in assorted foreign countries-including targeted killings and assassinations-this item hardly seems like a redline we can or should try to enforce.
It is also worth remembering that the U.S. and its allies didn't threaten to retaliate against the USSR for the "subversive activities" that were a central part of Soviet communism's international agenda from 1917 to 1986. The United States and NATO made it clear they'd respond to traditional acts of aggression, but we knew better than to make "subversion" a key "redline" in our overall strategy of containment. The goal was prevent Soviet expansion and to out-perform the USSR over time, so that communist subversion failed to find root in any countries that mattered. As 1989 proved, that strategy was a smashing success.
Sixth, a hair-trigger, forward-leaning approach to containment will give Iran an obvious incentive to acquire a deterrent of its own. No matter how much they hedge, Lindsay and Takeyh are announcing to the world that Iran's acquisition of a small nuclear capability at some point in the future would have significant positive effects on its regional position. I certainly hope Iran isn't listening to them, because it's hard to think of a better way to convince its leaders to go ahead. Moreover, overheated talk about the need for a more robust containment strategy is likely to reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent shield that can take the threat of regime change (an option Washington has never renounced) "off the table." But if we don't much like the idea of an Iranian bomb (and I don't), shouldn't we doing everything we can to convince Tehran that a bomb would be of little value? Perhaps unintentionally, Lindsay and Takeyh are sending precisely the opposite message.
Seventh, like most Americans writing about Iran these days, Lindsay and Takeyh never consider the one approach that might actually have some small chance of heading off an Iranian bomb. That approach would be to take the threat of regime change and preventive war off the table and accept Iran's enrichment program-on the strict condition that it ratifies and implements all elements of the NPT Additional Protocol. At the same time, the United States would engage in serious and sincere discussions about a range of regional security matters, including a public U.S. guarantee to forego regime change.
This is the sort of "grand bargain" that others have proposed in the past, and there is of course no guarantee that it will work. Moreover, many people would find any dealings with the current regime objectionable, for understandable reasons. But if an Iranian bomb is such a scary prospect, shouldn't we be pulling out all the stops to see if an acceptable diplomatic solution is possible? As near as I can tell, the sort of grand bargain sketched in the previous paragraph has never been tried; instead, we've made rhetorical gestures and incremental take-it-or-leave-it offers-all of which predictably fail-and we falsely conclude from these half-hearted efforts that more ambitious diplomacy is unworkable.
Finally, it's possible that I'm being too hard on Lindsay and Takeyh. Perhaps they are sheep in wolves' clothing, and their article is in fact a plea for a moderate and sensible strategy of containment dressed up in a lot of tough rhetoric intended to make it more convincing. If so, I fear their approach is too clever by half. Despite their apparent rejection of preventive war and assorted other qualifications, the Lindsay/Takeyh articles unintentionally reinforce an alarmist view of Iran that has been the neoconservatives' bread-and-butter for many years.
Don't forget: between 1998 and 2003, the pro-war party took an extreme position on Iraq and stuck to its guns (literally), looking for every opportunity to advance its program. 9/11 opened the door, and they were quick to seize the moment. Over time, both liberals and moderates were dragged rightward, adopting hawkish rhetoric and tortured rationales in order to show how "serious" they were. Former doves jumped on the bandwagon, the center of gravity swung inexorably to the hard-line position, and the results were disastrous. Something similar seems to be happening again; to paraphrase Yeats, "the centre cannot hold."
Why? Yeats also gives us the answer: because "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
Guest post by Sean Kay
Recently in Washington, D.C., a group of experts met as part of an ongoing review to develop a new "strategic concept" for the NATO allies to approve at a heads-of-state summit to be held in late 2010. Key speeches were presented by the NATO Secretary General Fogh Rassmussen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The result, however, has been an exercise in NATO "group think" with little relevance to real strategic thinking about America and its core national security interes.
This NATO review process is failing to account for three fundamental contradictions.
First, NATO Secretary General Rassmussen stated that: "We must face new challenges. Terrorism, proliferation, cyber security or even climate change will oblige us to seek new ways of operating. And in a time of financial and budget constraints, we need to maximize our efficiency within limited resources." However, all of these issues are challenges far better suited for the European Union (EU) and a special US-EU relationship to manage rather than NATO.
Second, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that: "This Alliance has endured because of the skill of our diplomats, the strength of our soldiers, and - most importantly - the power of its founding principles." Yet, one of NATO's core founding principles was to create a circumstance in which Europe could stand on its own two feet. This is, effectively, NATO's last unfulfilled mission after the Cold War and it is now hindered by an institutional framework allowing Europeans to free-ride on American security provision.
Third, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated: "The demilitarization of Europe - where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it - has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st." The demilitarization of Europe, however, means that NATO has succeeded in its fundamental mission - that Europe no longer fights wars is a good thing. Moreover, Europe has no incentive to contribute to global security missions so long as America takes the lead. Europe has every incentive to free-ride on American power and NATO perpetuates that.
Secretary Gates did provide his audience with a dose of realism, noting that: "Right now, the alliance faces very serious, long-term, systemic problems." What he fails to appreciate, however, is that these problems are not going to be solved by berating European allies for pursuing obvious benefit to their national interests. Rather, the solution is to change the strategic dynamic by beginning to reduce American military commitments overseas and realigning - including cutting - defense spending to reflect new security realities.
Recently, Secretary of State Clinton testified to Congress that: We have to address this deficit and the debt of the U.S. as a matter of national security, not only as a matter of economics." Indeed, the most serious threat to America's geostrategic position in the world is its $12 trillion national debt. Yet, the United States has increased its commitment to Afghanistan, seems unlikely to be able to disengage from Iraq anytime soon, faces a growing confrontation with Iran, and is simultaneously increasing its defense spending. Meanwhile, the American public is in its most isolationist mood in decades. It is in this context that NATO's "group of experts" seeks to add missions to the alliance, rather than rethink the role of the alliance itself.
The Department of Defense recently published its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) which states rightly that the United States must "increasingly cooperate with key allies and partners if it is to sustain peace and security" (interestingly in a December 2009 draft version of the QDR, the language read "rely" on key allies). Yet the QDR and the new defense budget both show a United States seeking to hold onto a primacy in global security that is no longer sustainable. The QDR notes that the US seeks to prevent and deter conflict by: "Extending a global defense posture comprised of joint, ready forces forward stationed and rotationally deployed to prevail across all domains, prepositioned equipment and overseas facilities, and international agreements." This is not a strategy that reflects wise prioritization by a country $12 trillion in debt.
The QDR typically emphasizes NATO as part of this global presence - and understandably points to Afghanistan as an essential component of this global partnership in a transformed alliance. While it is increasingly said that Afghanistan is a crucial test for NATO - the reality is that NATO has already failed in Afghanistan. In his assessment from summer 2009, General Stanley McChrystal noted that the operational culture of the NATO mission in Afghanistan would have to be fundamentally transformed. This critical step, however, is not happening. While the Europeans are contributing, there is nothing inherent in the ISAF command structure that requires it to be a NATO-engaged coalition. In fact, Brussels currently has very little to do with operations in Afghanistan and Europeans might contribute more if their reputation in Afghanistan was more closely linked to the future of the European Union.
A strategic concept for NATO need not be very complicated. There are basically two missions left for the alliance.
First, NATO should be kept as a reserve capacity built around the traditional Article 5 mission of territorial collective defense as a hedge against future geopolitical rivalry at the global or regional level. This, however, need not require costly new initiatives to keep NATO busy, but rather should be seen as a reserve fund of alliance power - political in nature with operational doctrines available on the shelf. NATO should continue its process of reaching out to engage Russia and abandon its provocative and self-defeating discussion of further enlargement or "global NATO" operations which are not realistic or sustainable but which create strategic costs in the US-Russian relationship.
Second, NATO's staff should be given a clear mandate to work themselves out of a job - with their final mission being to hand over full lead responsibility for regional security to the European Union. The most fundamental missions of NATO are achieved - Europe is integrated, whole, and free. The challenge now is to ensure that this is sustained via the European Union. By jealously hanging onto an irrelevant dominance over European security policy, the United States hinders effective EU security integration and ironically damages America's own interests. If the United States can't hand over lead authority in Europe where can it?
Before committing to a strategic concept driven by NATO groupthink, President Obama should convene a policy review that brings into the process a broader range of strategic thinking than a self-motivated Washington-Brussels network which habitually seeks new missions, new budgets, and continues to drain the United States of scarce resources. Europe is not yet capable of standing alone - and these strategic shifts will not happen overnight. However, they certainly will never happen if the United States does not make the building of the European Union, not NATO, its primary strategic goal in the transatlantic security architecture. A fundamental and lasting alignment of the transatlantic security dynamic can be a vital legacy for President Obama - but it will require a much greater application of realism to the role of NATO than is currently being considered.
Sean Kay is Chair, International Studies and Professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is also a Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies and Non-Resident Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of NATO and the Future of European Security and Global Security in the Twenty-first Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.
Back in the fall of 2003, I was in London for an conference and I took a stroll around the neighborhood near my hotel. At one point I turned a corner and saw a massive, looming building, surrounded with various barriers and fences and looking for all the world like an updated version of a medieval castle. "What's that?" I wondered, and wandered over to investigate. It was the U.S. Embassy, of course, and I was struck by how forbidding and unwelcoming it was. It seemed to me to be a vivid physical symbol of a powerful Empire striving to keep the outside world at bay.
I thought of that moment today when I read the Times story on the winning design for a new U.S. embassy in London. Lord knows I'm no architecture critic, and I think my wife was too harsh when she said the winning design looked "like a big ice-cube," but the sketches in the Times don't show a building that invites the world in, or that conveys a sense of openness and confidence. Despite elaborate efforts to conceal security measures with adroit landscaping, the overall image is one where security concerns predominate: a fancy building isolated from its surroundings and keeping the world at arm's length.
What troubles me is what this tells us about America's place in the contemporary world, and the tensions between its global ambitions and its willingness to accept the consequences of them. On the one hand, the United States defines its own interests in global terms: there are no regions and few policy issues where we don't want to have a significant voice, and there are many places and issues where we insist on having the loudest one. But on the other hand, we don't think we should get our hair mussed while we tell the world what to do. It's tolerable for the United States to fire drones virtually anywhere (provided the states in question can't retaliate, of course), and Americans don't seem to have much of a problem with our running covert programs to destabilize other regimes that we've decided to dislike. We also aid, comfort and diplomatic support to assorted other states whose governments often act in deeply objectionable ways. But then we face the obvious problem that some people are going to object to these policies, hold us responsible, and try to do what they can to hit back.
So we have to build embassies that resemble fortresses, and that convey an image of America that is at odds with our interests and our own self-image, and especially with the image that we would like to convey to foreign peoples. We like to think of our country as friendly and welcoming, as open to new ideas, and as a strong, diverse and confident society built on a heritage of pluck and grit. You know, we're supposed to be a society built by generations of immigrants, pioneers, and other determined folk who faced adversity and risk with a smile and a bit of a swagger. Yet the "Fortress America" approach to embassy design presents a public face that is an odd combination of power and paranoia.
Don't get me wrong: states in the modern world do have to worry about security for their representatives, and we ought to take all reasonable measures to ensure that our diplomats are adequately protected. But as with dangers (such as extremists with explosives in their underwear), it's possible to go too far in the quest for perfect security. Trying to blast-proof everything may even be counterproductive, if the damage done to our global image is greater than the damage that violent radicals would do to a slightly less-fortified global presence
I've been trying to make sense of the recent news from Afghanistan and Pakistan, so let me share my musings here. There's no question that the news from the past week or so is encouraging. The Marine-led effort to clear the Taliban out of the Afghan city of Marjah appears to be going well (despite some obvious mishaps, like the accidental killing of a dozen Afghan civilians by an errant rocket attack), and the capture of a top Pakistani Taliban commander is likely to weaken those forces and suggests that the Pakistani government is taking this fight more seriously.
These are encouraging signs, and we should all hope that progress like this continues. Whether you supported Obama's escalation of the war or not, the obvious way to end America's costly and distracting efforts in Central Asia is to achieve a rapid victory that enables us to withdraw. I'm still not optimistic about our long-term prospects (or convinced that it is as vital a contest as others think) but I'd be delighted to be proved wrong on this one.
That said, there are several reasons why it's premature to be hoisting the "Mission Accomplished" sign at this stage (and to be fair, I haven't seen anyone doing that yet).
First, most of the accounts we are getting from Marjah are from official sources or embedded journalists, and these initial reports often tend to highlight achievements unless the operation is a complete disaster. In short, there may be a bit of an upward bias in the reports we've seen so far.
Second, it is always difficult to know whether a tactical success is strategically significant, especially in this sort of engagement. There was never much question about the Marines' ability to expel the Taliban, the only question was how much resistance they would face and what the casualty ratios might be. Casualties do not seem to be that high on either side, however, which suggests that many (though not all) of the Taliban have slipped away to fight another day. That problem has always been one of our major strategic challenges, especially given the porous Afghan/Pakistani border. How can the United States and its allies pacify the entire country, when the adversary can flee and wait us out?
Third, as others have already noted, the real issues are 1) will Afghan security forces will be able to hold the area after the Marines move on, and 2) can the various groups and factions in Afghanistan achieve a workable political formula that will stabilize the country and (eventually) permit the United States and NATO to withdraw? Unfortunately, as Juan Cole notes today, there are still good reasons to be skeptical about the ongoing effort to train reliable Afghan police and security forces. And there are still few signs of genuine political reconciliation (or even compromise).
What I can't decide is whether the capture of Mullah Baradar is a step forward or something more ambiguous. On the one hand, it's hard not to be pleased by signs that Pakistan is taking the counter-Taliban campaign more seriously, and equally hard to be displeased when a top Taliban military commander is no longer in the field (and is presumably giving up useful information while in custody). But as the Times notes today, this development may also give Pakistan a bigger voice in the deliberations over Afghanistan, and its past support for the Afghan Taliban hasn't always been constructive (at least, not from the U.S. point of view).
The lesson I draw from all this -- admittedly speculative -- is that U.S. military efforts in Central Asia need to supplemented by even more energetic efforts at regional diplomacy. We don't have the military forces, staying power, cultural insight, or influence to play unilateral "kingmaker" in that part of the world, and we ought to be putting as much of the burden on regional actors as we can. So it may be a good thing if the Pakistanis now have a more credible claim to a place at the table, provided we seize the opportunity and are open to a wide range of possibilities. Paging Ambassador Holbrooke?
The key thing to remember is that we ultimately don't care very much who is running Afghanistan or Pakistan, provided that whoever is in charge isn't giving anti-American terrorists free rein to attack the United States, and in the case of Pakistan, provided they are maintaining reliable control over its nuclear arsenals. Helping the regional actors work out a modus vivendi may be our best strategy, even if the outcome doesn't conform perfectly to our own ideals or political values.
So I see the past week or so as somewhat encouraging, but I'm not breaking out the champagne yet. And neither should anyone else.
UPDATE: In my haste this AM, I mistakenly referred to the captured
Taliban official, Mullah Baradar, as a member of the Pakistani
Taliban. That’s wrong: he is/was of course part of the Afghan
Taliban (though he was hiding out in Pakistan before he was
captured). My bad. And I'm still not sure what it tells us about
Pakistan's overall aims at this point.
A reader also challenged whether it makes sense to refer to Marjah as a city. Wikipedia gives its population as 85,000 or so, swelling to 125,000 if you include the surrounding areas, and Radio Free Europe described it as a "large village." CNN used the term “city” in a recent background story, and the video found here makes it look like either term would be appropriate. So I’ll stand by my original use of the word, but would happily defer to anyone who’s actually been there and has a different and well-informed view.
For additional “musings” on what all this might mean, see here.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Apropos my earlier arguments against those who think the Islamic Republic is teetering on the brink of collapse, comes the following report from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Their analysis of numerous surveys suggests that Ahmadinejad really did win the election, even though there were probably irregularities and his reported margin may have been inflated. Money quote:
[N]one of the polls found indications of support for regime change. Large majorities, including majorities of Mousavi supporters, endorse the Islamist character of the regime such as having a body of Islamic scholars with the power to veto laws they see as contrary to sharia.”
This result hardly means that there isn't serious opposition within Iran; nor does it absolve the clerical regime from having dealt with the protesters in an harsh and brutal fashion. But it ought to give those who think the Iranian people are panting for U.S.-led "liberation" a moment of pause (though I doubt it will lead the hawks to revise their views).
The poll also found that supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi remain interested in rapprochement with the United States and “were ready to make a deal whereby Iran would preclude developing nuclear weapons through intrusive international inspections in exchange for the removal of sanctions. However, this was equally true of the majority of all Iranians.”
Notice also that they are not saying they are willing to give up enrichment, but they are willing to forego weaponization. That’s the only possible deal that I can imagine anytime soon, and wouldn’t it be nice if we tried it?
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
I don't expect President Obama to devote much time to foreign policy issues during his State of the Union address tomorrow, because other topics (health care, the economy, regulating Wall Street, etc.) are causing him the most trouble these days. Plus, if he was going to talk a lot about foreign policy, what exactly could he say? That we are making great strides in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Nope. That his Cairo speech has transformed our standing in the Middle East and brought us to the brink of Middle East peace? Hardly. That we have turned the corner on climate change, nuclear arms reductions, or relations with Iran? Um ... not exactly. That relations with allies like Japan have never been better? Well, no. That the Guantanamo prison has been closed on schedule, as he promised a year ago? Er. ... not quite. When you look at the list, you can see why he wants to talk about a discretionary spending freeze and other exciting topics like that.
To be fair, the absence of tangible achievements isn't entirely Barack's fault. As I've written elsewhere, there were few low-hanging fruit when he took office, and nobody should have expected him to fix all of these difficult challenges in a single year or even in a single term. (You may even recall that back when he assumed office, he warned us that it would take time to repair all that was broken). So even if he had done everything right -- and he hasn't -- a lot of big-ticket items on his foreign policy agenda were going to defy easy solution.
But what would I like to hear him say on Wednesday night? If I may indulge in a bit of (unrealistic) fantasy for the moment, here's an announcement he could make that would really make me sit up and take notice, and restore some of my flagging enthusiasm for his presidency. After the usual bromides about the challenges we face, our global responsibilities, our lofty ideals, the sacrifices made by our fighting men and women, the heartbreaking devastation in Haiti, etc., imagine him continuing as follows:
Do I expect to hear those words -- or anything remotely like them -- on Wednesday? Of course not; I said it was a fantasy, remember? I don't even expect to hear Obama admit that anything might be wrong with his approach to international affairs; that's not what the SOTU speech is for and not even this president readily admits error. The safe bet? Obama's foreign policy will continue along the same well-trod paths and with the same disappointing results.
P.S. Speaking of national security, I'll be spending Thursday and Friday as a guest of the U.S. Navy, observing a naval exercise. I expect to be duly impressed, but will do my best to maintain my scholarly independence. I won't have my laptop with me, however, so I won't be blogging between tomorrow and Friday. Anchors aweigh!
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Back in 2002, the Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a book by Kenneth Pollack (subsequently director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at Brookings), entitled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. The book argued that Saddam Hussein was irrational and undeterrable and that the United States had no choice but to remove him from power. Part of the book’s effectiveness derived from Pollack’s portrayal of himself as a belated convert to preventive war: he had opposed using force in the past, he said, but was now convinced—oh so reluctantly—that no other course was prudent. The book provided intellectual cover for all those liberal hawks who were looking for some way to justify supporting the war, and thus played an important role in a great national disaster.
Last week, CFR president Richard Haass appeared to be channeling his inner Pollack in a Newsweek column calling for regime change in Iran. Describing himself as a “card-carrying realist,” he sounded Pollackian notes of reluctance and resignation. He says that he normally thinks that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” and adds that he previously backed the Obama administration’s decision to try diplomacy first.
But now, he says, he’s “changed his mind.” He’s convinced that Iran is trying to acquire the capacity to build a nuclear weapon (a carefully worded phrase, by the way, as having the capacity to build a nuke is not the same as actually building one and Iran may merely be seeking a latent capacity akin to Japan rather than an actual nuclear arsenal). He also thinks -- from his lofty perch in New York City -- that Iran “may be closer to profound political change than at any other time since the revolution that ousted the Shah thirty years ago.” Although he doesn’t call for a U.S. invasion (which we don’t have the forces for anyway), he wants the U.S. and its allies to be more vocal about Iranian human rights violations and advocates slapping targeted sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Meanwhile, neither senior U.S. officials nor congressmen should have any dealings with the Iranian regime, and we ought to push hard for sanctions on refined petroleum products at the U.N. (where they won’t be approved). Somewhat inconsistently, he thinks “working-level negotiations on the nuclear question should continue,” even though he must know that there’s hardly any chance that they will succeed while we are doing all the other things he advocates.
While there is no question that Haass’ piece will help fuel America’s sense of self-righteousness -- look, we’re defending freedom! -- the course of action he lays out is foolish. No one in the United States can be confident that Iran is close to “profound political change”; we simply don’t have enough information to know what is happening in Tehran, and authoritarian regimes often hold on to power for decades despite widespread domestic discontent.
Moreover, as I’ve noted before, key members of the current opposition are strongly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program, which means that there is little reason to think that Iran will abandon its nuclear program even if there is some sort of regime change. So if that's what's really bugging him -- and it appears to be -- then his prescribed course of action will just reinforce Iran's desire for a deterrent of its own. Acting as Haass prescribes could also weaken the opposition rather than strengthen it, by allowing the regime to discredit their adversaries as foreign puppets. He says the clerics and Revolutionary Guards are doing that already, but why give them more ammunition for the fight?
There are at least three other reasons why Haass’ new position is misguided.
First, after acknowledging that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” he assumes that anything would be preferable to what we have now. Maybe so, but our track record in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, and elsewhere suggests that U.S. meddling often makes things worse. Like the liberal interventionists he has sometimes sparred with in the past, Haass simply cannot imagine leaving well enough alone, and letting Iran’s own people determine their own political future. A hands-off approach is not an endorsement of the clerics or the brutal behavior of the Revolutionary Guards; it is merely recognition that further meddling on our part might be counterproductive.
Second, as Richard Silverstein points out on his blog, Haass’ approach lacks patience. Repairing the troubled U.S.-Iran relationship cannot be accomplished in a month or even a year, and the kind of posturing and pressure that Haass is calling for is more likely to retard progress than advance it. Ordinary Iranians are already convinced that the United States has long interfered in their affairs for various nefarious purposes -- and with some reason -- and putting on the full-court press isn’t going to reduce those concerns. Indeed, it will surely exacerbate them.
Third, a policy of “regime change-lite” puts us one step closer to actual war. Haass is saying in effect that Iran’s government has no legitimacy or standing and that we ought to help bring it down. Attacking Iran is not a practical goal right now, but getting rid of the regime ought to be. So what happens when sanctions and speeches and ostracism don’t work, and Iran continues to develop its enrichment program? Wait another year or two, and Haass will find himself sounding even more like Kenneth Pollack, telling us that he has ever so reluctantly concluded that we have no choice but to bomb.
One would hope to see better analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations, especially in light of the fiasco in Iraq. And if it is a harbinger of things to come, look out.
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 10: (AFP OUT) Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass speaks during a taping of a roundtable discussion of 'Meet the Press' at the NBC studios December 10, 2006 in Washington, DC. Haass discussed the findings of the Iraq Study Group report on the evaluation of the war in Iraq. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press)
If Mideast special envoy George Mitchell wants to end his career with his reputation intact, it is time for him to resign. He had a distinguished tenure in the U.S. Senate -- including a stint as majority leader -- and his post-Senate career has been equally accomplished. He was an effective mediator of the conflict in Northern Ireland, helped shepherd the Disney Corporation through a turbulent period, and led an effective investigation of the steroids scandal afflicting major league baseball. Nobody can expect to be universally admired in the United States, but Mitchell may have come as close as any politician in recent memory.
Why should Mitchell step down now? Because he is wasting his time. The administration's early commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace was either a naïve bit of bravado or a cynical charade, and if Mitchell continues to pile up frequent-flyer miles in a fruitless effort, he will be remembered as one of a long series of U.S. "mediators" who ended up complicit in Israel's self-destructive land grab on the West Bank. Mitchell will turn 77 in August, he has already undergone treatment for prostate cancer, and he's gotten exactly nowhere (or worse) since his mission began. However noble the goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace might be, surely he's got better things to do.
In an interview earlier this week with Time's Joe Klein, President Obama acknowledged that his early commitment to achieving "two states for two peoples" had failed. In his words, "this is as intractable a problem as you get ... Both sides-the Israelis and the Palestinians-have found that the political environments, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that" (my emphasis).
This admission raises an obvious question: who was responsible for this gross miscalculation? It's not as if the dysfunctional condition of Israeli and Palestinian internal politics was a dark mystery when Obama took office, or when Netanyahu formed the most hard-line government in Israeli history. Which advisors told Obama and Mitchell to proceed as they did, raising expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, publicly insisting on a settlement freeze, and then engaging in a humiliating retreat? Did they ever ask themselves what they would do if Netanyahu dug in his heels, as anyone with a triple-digit IQ should have expected? And if Obama now realizes how badly they screwed up, why do the people who recommended this approach still have their jobs?
As for Mitchell himself, he should resign because it should be clear to him that he was hired under false pretenses. He undoubtedly believed Obama when the president said he was genuinely committed to achieving Israel-Palestinian peace in his first term. Obama probably promised to back him up, and his actions up to the Cairo speech made it look like he meant it. But his performance ever since has exposed him as another U.S. president who is unwilling to do what everyone knows it will take to achieve a just peace. Mitchell has been reduced to the same hapless role that Condoleezza Rice played in the latter stages of the Bush administration -- engaged in endless "talks" and inconclusive haggling over trivialities-and he ought to be furious at having been hung out to dry in this fashion.
The point is not that Obama's initial peace effort in the Middle East has failed; the real lesson is that he didn't really try. The objective was admirably clear from the start -- "two states for two peoples" -- what was missing was a clear strategy for getting there and the political will to push it through. And notwithstanding the various difficulties on the Palestinian side, the main obstacle has been the Netanyahu government's all-too obvious rejection of anything that might look like a viable Palestinian state, combined with its relentless effort to gobble up more land. Unless the U.S. president is willing and able to push Israel as hard as it is pushing the Palestinians (and probably harder), peace will simply not happen. Pressure on Israel is also the best way to defang Hamas, because genuine progress towards a Palestinian state in the one thing that could strengthen Abbas and other Palestinian moderates and force Hamas to move beyond its talk about a long-term hudna (truce) and accept the idea of permanent peace.
It's not as if Obama and Co. don't realize that this is important. National Security Advisor James Jones has made it clear that he sees the Israel-Palestinian issue as absolutely central; it's not our only problem in the Middle East, but it tends to affect most of the others and resolving it would be an enormous boon. And there's every sign that the president is aware of the need to do more than just talk.
Yet U.S. diplomacy in this area remains all talk and no action. When a great power identifies a key interest and is strongly committed to achieving it, it uses all the tools at its disposal to try to bring that outcome about. Needless to say, the use of U.S. leverage has been conspicuously absent over the past year, which means that Mitchell has been operating with both hands tied firmly behind his back. Thus far, the only instrument of influence that Obama has used has been presidential rhetoric, and even that weapon has been used rather sparingly.
And please don't blame this on Congress. Yes, Congress will pander to the lobby, oppose a tougher U.S. stance, and continue to supply Israel with generous economic and military handouts, but a determined president still has many ways of bringing pressure to bear on recalcitrant clients. The problem is that Obama refused to use any of them.
When Netanyahu dug in his heels and refused a complete settlement freeze -- itself a rather innocuous demand if Israel preferred peace to land -- did Obama describe the settlements as "illegal" and contrary to international law? Of course not. Did he fire a warning shot by instructing the Department of Justice to crack down on tax-deductible contributions to settler organizations? Nope. Did he tell Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to signal his irritation by curtailing U.S. purchases of Israeli arms, downgrading various forms of "strategic cooperation," or canceling a military exchange or two? Not a chance. When Israel continued to evict Palestinians from their homes and announced new settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in August, did Obama remind Netanyahu of his dependence on U.S. support by telling U.S. officials to say a few positive things about the Goldstone Report and to use its release as an opportunity to underscore the need for a genuine peace? Hardly; instead, the administration rewarded Netanyau's intransigence by condemning Goldstone and praising Netanyahu for "unprecedented" concessions. (The "concessions," by the way, was an announcement that Israel would freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank "temporarily" while continuing it in East Jerusalem. In other words, they'll just take the land a bit more slowly).
Like the Clinton and Bush administrations, in short, the idea that the United States ought to use its leverage and exert genuine pressure on Israel remains anathema to Obama, to Mitchell and his advisors, and to all those pundits who are trapped in the Washington consensus on this issue. The main organizations in the Israel lobby are of course dead-set against it -- and that goes for J Street as well -- even though there is no reason to expect Israel to change course in the absence of countervailing pressure.
Obama blinked -- leaving Mitchell with nothing to do-because he needed to keep sixty senators on board with his health care initiative (that worked out well, didn't it?), because he didn't want to jeopardize the campaign coffers of the Democratic Party, and because he knew he'd be excoriated by Israel's false friends in the U.S. media if he did the right thing. I suppose I ought to be grateful to have my thesis vindicated in such striking fashion, but there's too much human misery involved on both sides to take any consolation in that.
So what will happen now? Israel has made it clear that it is going to keep building settlements -- including the large blocs (like Ma'ale Adumim) that were consciously designed to carve up the West Bank and make creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority, and other moderate forces will be increasingly discredited as collaborators or dupes. As Israel increasingly becomes an apartheid state, its international legitimacy will face a growing challenge. Iran's ability to exploit the Palestinian cause will be strengthened, and pro-American regimes in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere will be further weakened by their impotence and by their intimate association with the United States. It might even help give al Qaeda a new lease on life, at least in some places. Jews in other countries will continue to distance themselves from an Israel that they see as a poor embodiment of their own values, and one that can no longer portray itself convincingly as "a light unto the nations." And the real tragedy is that all this might have been avoided, had the leaders of the world's most powerful country been willing to use their influence on both sides more directly.
Looking ahead, one can see two radically different possibilities. The first option is that Israel retains control of the West Bank and Gaza and continues to deny the Palestinians full political rights or economic opportunities. (Netanyahu likes to talk about a long-term "economic peace," but his vision of Palestinian bantustans under complete Israeli control is both a denial of the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations and a severe obstacle to their ability to fully develop their own society. Over time, there may be another intifada, which the IDF will crush as ruthlessly as it did the last one. Perhaps the millions of remaining Palestinians will gradually leave -- as hardline Israelis hope and as former House speaker Dick Armey once proposed. If so, then a country founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust -- one of history's greatest crimes-will have completed a dispossession begun in 1948 -- a great crime of its own.
Alternatively, the Palestinians may remain where they are, and begin to demand equal rights in the state under whose authority they have been forced to dwell. If Israel denies them these rights, its claim to being the "only democracy in the Middle East" will be exposed as hollow. If it grants them, it will eventually cease to be a Jewish-majority state (though its culture would undoubtedly retain a heavily Jewish/Israeli character). As a long-time supporter of Israel's existence, I would take no joy in that outcome. Moreover, transforming Israel into a post-Zionist and multinational society would be a wrenching and quite possibly violent experience for all concerned. For both reasons, I've continued to favor "two states for two peoples" instead.
But with the two-state solution looking less and less likely, these other possibilities begin to loom large. Through fear and fecklessness, the United States has been an active enabler of an emerging tragedy. Israelis have no one to blame but themselves for the occupation, but Americans -- who like to think of themselves as a country whose foreign policy reflects deep moral commitments-will be judged harshly for our own role in this endeavor.
The United States will suffer certain consequences as a result-decreased international influence, a somewhat greater risk of anti-American terrorism, tarnished moral reputation, etc.-but it will survive. But Israel may be in the process of drafting its own suicide pact, and its false friends here in the United States have been supplying the paper and ink. By offering his resignation-and insisting that Obama accept it-George Mitchell can escape the onus of complicity in this latest sad chapter of an all-too-familiar story. Small comfort, perhaps, but better than nothing.
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If memory serves, it was the distinguished political scientist Sidney Verba who once wryly advised that "one should never write about a country that you haven't flown over." It's a sardonic comment on the tendency for social scientists to pontificate about countries they barely know, and it sprang to mind during the last leg of my trip last week.
The final item on my itinerary was thirty-six hours in Tripoli, Libya. I was invited to give a lecture to its Economic Development Board, following in the footsteps of a number of other recent American visitors, including Frank Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, Joseph Nye, Robert Putnam, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Richard Perle (!). I'd never been to Libya before, and was looking forward to hearing what the audience had to say.
Unfortunately, my plane from London was five hours late (thanks again, British Airways!), so the scheduled lecture never took place. But I did get to meet with several Libyan officials and spent a few hours touring Tripoli itself. Mindful of Verba's warning, however, I can't offer anything like an informed assessment, so what follows are just a few quick and provisional impressions.
First, although Libya is far from a democracy, it also doesn't feel like other police states that I have visited. I caught no whiff of an omnipresent security service -- which is not to say that they aren't there -- and there were fewer police or military personnel on the streets than one saw in Franco's Spain. The Libyans with whom I spoke were open and candid and gave no sign of being worried about being overheard or reported or anything like that. The TV in my hotel room featured 50+ channels, including all the normal news services (BBC World Service, CNN, MSNBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, etc.) along with contemporary U.S. sitcoms like "2-1/2 Men," shows like "Desperate Housewives," assorted movies, and one of the various "CSI" clones. A colleague on the trip told me that many ordinary Libyans have satellite dishes and that the government doesn't interfere with transmissions. I tried visiting various political websites from my hotel room and had no problems, although other human rights groups report that Libya does engage in selective filtering of some political websites critical of the regime. It is also a crime to criticize Qaddafihimself, the government's past human rights record is disturbing at best, and the press in Libya is almost entirely government-controlled. Nonetheless, Libya appears to be more open than contemporary Iran or China and the overall atmosphere seemed far less oppressive than most places I visited in the old Warsaw Pact.
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I'm still on the road (about which more later), but have been trying to keep up with the news, most notably the tragic events in Haiti. As Yglesias says, Haiti has been "one of the unluckiest countries on earth," and it's especially heartbreaking that this earthquake occurred after several years of genuine progress. That progress, one might add, was facilitated by the U.N. peacekeeping mission, one of those unheralded episodes that habitual critics of the U.N. ought to reflect upon. I don't think the U.N. is the answer to all the world's problems or an institution that can prevent major powers from pursuing their interests, but it does do a lot of good around the world and shouldn't be bashed just for sport, or because of cockamamie fears about mythical black helicopters, alleged threats to U.S. sovereignty, or other staples of rightwing paranoia.
The obvious thing for the United States (and the world community) to do is respond quickly, effectively, and generously. The Bush administration's initial response to the Indian Ocean tsunami was initially quite niggardly (our first pledge of aid was a paltry $15 million or so), but Bush & Co. eventually got its act together and the U.S. Navy in particular performed very effective relief operations in Indonesia. Some accounts credit the Navy's effort with helping reverse the slide in America's image in that country, which had fallen to very low numbers before the disaster struck. So this is a case where we can do good for beleaguered Haitians and for ourselves by responding rapidly and generously, and it appears that the Obama administration is trying to do the right thing from the start this time.
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A few recent items that I thought I'd call your attention to, mostly about the Middle East.
1. Jerome Slater -- a distinguished professor emeritus from SUNY-Buffalo -- has started a new blog at www.jeromeslater.com. I've been reading Jerry's excellent scholarship for years, and have learned a great deal from him on a number of subjects, Israel-Palestine included. His opening entry is a sober discussion of the Goldstone Report, in which he demolishes the recent piece of hasbara by Prof. Moshe Halbertal in (surprise, surprise) The New Republic. Halbertal's analysis was sufficiently slanted to earn a "Sidney" award from the Times' David Brooks, but Slater's critique is quietly devastating. (For another telling critique of Halbertal's dust-kicking operation, see Jeremiah Haber's response at The Magnes Zionist, here and here.)
2. Tony Karon ("Rootless Cosmopolitan") has an excellent short analysis of Obama's foreign policy out at Time. His opening metaphor is dead on the mark: "the presidency is more like taking over the controls of a train than getting behind the wheel of a car. That's because you can't steer a train; you can only determine its speed." One might add that when most of the train's crew are enthusiastic liberal imperialists -- ooops, I mean "liberal internationalists" -- and when political operators are as important to your decisions as people with genuine foreign policy expertise, then you're not going to get much help if you try to switch to another track.
3. Over at Truthout.org, Tom Englehart and Nick Turse ask a lot of good questions about the direction of U.S. national security policy.
4. Gershom Gorenberg has a fine article in The American Prospect on the bogus "settlement freeze." Highly recommended for those who still believe the Netanyahu government wants peace more than it wants land.
5. My interview with The Browser on "five books on U.S.-Israeli relations" is available here. I couldn't resist plugging our own, but I do feel a bit sheepish about it. Frankly, I could easily have added five or ten more -- including a few books I have some disagreements with -- so don't view my list as even close to comprehensive.
6. Foreign Affairs is not the first place I look for analysis that breaks a lot of new ground, but the latest issue has a fine article by sociologist Jack A. Goldstone on the demographic changes that are going to remake global politics over the next several decades. Money quote:
"Four historic shifts . . . will fundamentally alter the world's population over the next four decades: the relative demographic weight of the world's developed countries will drop by nearly 25 percent, shifting economic power to the developing nations; the developed countries' labor forces will substantially age and decline, constraining economic growth in the developed world and raising the demand for immigrant workers; most of the world's expected population growth will increasingly be concentrated in today's poorest, youngest, and most heavily Muslim countries, which have a dangerous lack of quality education, capital, and employment opportunities; and, for the first time in history, most of the world's population will become urbanized, with the largest urban centers being in the world's poorest countries, where policing, sanitation, and health care are often scarce. . . . Coping with them will require nothing less than a major reconsideration of the world's basic global governance structures."
Goldstone is not the first person to discover these trends and one can quibble with some of his arguments, but his summary is rich and insightful and some of his prescriptions -- such as encouraging out-migration to the developing world by retirees in the developed world -- are intriguingly outside-the-box. Well worth a read.
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I spent some time over the holidays thinking about the underwear bomber, the hyperventilating that occurred after his botched attack, and the various inconveniences and costs we will incur as the authorities scramble to "do something." Add to that the likelihood that we will now get more heavily bogged down in Yemen, in another fruitless effort to remake a country that few, if any, Americans understand very well.
My first thought is to wonder whether Osama bin Laden and his buddies are really proud of Mr. Abdulmutullab. This latest attempt will cause the United States to spend a lot of time and money to make sure nobody sneaks another crude device through in their shorts, but does it really help al Qaeda's image to have their latest hero become famous for his underpants? Yes, I know that real lives were at risk, and I'm not making light of an attempt at mass murder. But in the battle for hearts and minds, having an enemy known as the "underwear bomber" is a pretty good propaganda coup. Score one for our side.
Second, most of the commentary about the attack focused on the breakdown in security procedures and possible intelligence failures, but for me the real issue is to ask why groups like al Qaeda want to attack us in the first place. With a few exceptions, this is a question that rarely gets much scrutiny anymore; pundits just assume "terrorists" are inherently evil and that’s why they do evil things. (And some American extremists recommend that suspects like the Gitmo detainees be summarily executed without trial. I kid you not). But we really do need to spend some time asking why terrorists are targeting us, and whether we could alleviate (though not eliminate) the problem by adjusting some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.
In particular, I'm struck by the inability of most Americans to connect the continued risk of global terrorism with America's highly interventionist global policy. One can have a serious debate about whether that policy is the right one or not; my point is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can behave this way and remain immune from any adverse consequences. As a society, we seem to believe that we can send thousands of troops to invade other countries, send Reapers and Predators to fire missiles at people we think might -- repeat, might -- be terrorists, and underwrite the oppressive policies of a host of "friendly" governments, yet never pay any significant price for it back here at home. We are a nation of swaggering sheep: eager to impose our will on others yet terrified that doing so might inconvenience us, let alone put U.S. civilians in real danger.
I'm not for one minute justifying what groups like al Qaeda do; my point is that we shouldn't be surprised by it. When a very powerful country spends a lot of time interfering in other’s affairs, and sometimes backing obvious injustices like the Gaza War, then it ought to expect some people to be very angry about it. And because there’s no such thing as a perfect defense, sometimes those angry people will hit back. They won’t do as much to us as we’ve done to them because they’re a lot weaker, but occasionally they will draw blood.
Yet Americans still find this surprising, and demand more and more extreme measures to "protect" us. We are like a heavy smoker who gets upset when they get diagnosed with emphysema, or a glutton who thinks it is "unfair" when he winds up with diabetes and high blood pressure. Face it, folks: if you want to be the world's dominant power, and you want to spend a lot of time telling millions of people how they should live, who their leaders should be, what weapons they are allowed to have, and what sorts of political beliefs are considered "legitimate," etc., and to back that agenda up with a lot of military force, then some amount of blowback is the price of doing business.
Instead, Americans are shocked when someone like the underwear bomber appears, and politicians and "homeland security experts" immediately leap to the airwaves to dissect the latest Threat to Our Sacred Way of Life. Meanwhile, other "brave Americans" protest plans to move suspected terrorists from Gitmo to maximum security prisons, as if a set of incarcerated, heavily guarded, and disoriented prisoners pose a grave threat to their local communities. And just yesterday, the United States and several allies announced they were going to close their embassies in Yemen, citing the risk of terrorist attack. I can understand the desire to protect U.S. diplomats, but what does it say about our resolve, our staying power, and our recognition that world politics is a rough business and sometimes entails costs and risks?
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It's the holiday season, and with it comes the tradition of gift-giving. These acts of generosity warm the cold months of winter and provide us with tangible signs of affection from our loved ones. Although a spirit of kindness and altruism is part of the process, an element of self-interest is often present too. Parents sometimes give their kids presents designed to encourage some worthy activity (e.g., a new musical instrument, a worthwhile book to read, a new camera for a child interested in photography), and spouses sometimes give presents intended to repair a rift or from which they expect to benefit either directly or indirectly. (Confession: I have on a few occasions given my wife CDs that were secretly intended for my iPod. Not that I got away with it....).
Given that international politics is a competitive realm-and sometimes brutally so-you wouldn't expect to see a lot of selfless generosity. But it does occur at times, and the week between Hanukah and Christmas seemed like the perfect opportunity to offer up a list of the "greatest gifts" that one country ever bestowed on others. I make no claim that this is a complete list-or even the best one-and I hope readers will send in their own alternative suggestions. Also, because this is foreign policy, some noteworthy "gifts" were wholly unintended. In international politics, some gifts are actually blunders rather than deliberate acts of generosity, even if others benefited greatly from them.
So in no particular order, here are ten of the "greatest gifts" in modern foreign policy.
1. The British Campaign against the Slave Trade, 1807-1867. High on any list of foreign policy altruism would be Great Britain's lengthy campaign to eradicate the slave trade. As ably analyzed by Robert Pape and Chaim Kaufmann, this may be the clearest case of "costly moral action" in international history. At its peak the anti-slavery campaign may have cost the British roughly two percent of GDP, even though Britain derived few, if any, strategy or commercial benefits from the effort. Instead, it was done for essentially moral reasons, reflecting the critical influence of abolitionist forces in British domestic politics.
2. The Marshall Plan, 1947. There was an obvious element of self-interest here, as the U.S. officials understood that European economic recovery was essential to prevent the spread of communism and to America's own economic growth. Yet the decision to provide $13 billion in additional economic assistance (at a time when U.S. GDP was roughly $250 billion), was nonetheless a far-sighted and creative act of statesmanship. Sometimes giving gifts to others does leave you better off. Can you imagine the U.S. Congress pledging a similar percentage of national income (i.e., more than $600 billion) to an economic relief program today?
3. Hitler's Declaration of War against the United States, 1941. This falls under the category of "unintended gifts." Although President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to get the United States into the fight against Nazi Germany, isolationist opinion stymied his efforts until Pearl Harbor. Yet after the Japanese attack on December 7, a "Europe first" strategy would have been difficult to sell had Hitler remained strictly neutral, and had he been clever enough to adopt a conciliatory position towards Washington. Public anger at Japan would have forced Roosevelt to focus on the Pacific, despite its lesser strategic importance. Thus, Hitler's declaration of war was in fact a great gift to Roosevelt, thought it was hardly an act of deliberate generosity.
4. The U.S.-Israel "Special Relationship." I'm sure readers would be disappointed if I left this one out, and it belongs on the list in any case. There's been self-interest involved here too-at least during the Cold War-but providing an annual subsidy equivalent to about $500 per Israeli citizen, along with consistent diplomatic backing, is a remarkably generous gift, especially when one considers the other costs it imposes on the United States (alienated friends, heightened risk of terrorism, more complicated regional diplomacy, etc.) The late Yitzhak Rabin said it best: American support for Israel is "beyond compare in modern history." It is also be one of those gifts that now does more harm than good, because it enables policies that are jeopardizing Israel's long-term future. At this point, it's a bit like loving parents who give a teenager a high-powered Harley and promise to replace it no matter what: they shouldn't be surprised if some reckless driving follows.
5. The Presidency of George W. Bush. Another unintentional gift, in this case given to America's adversaries around the world. The Bush team downplayed the risk of terrorism and was caught off-guard on 9/11, missed Bin Laden at Tora Bora and starved the Afghan recovery effort, went to war on false pretenses in Iraq and bungled the occupation, tarnished the U.S. image by mishandling Katrina and making torture an officially sanctioned policy, and led us into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. I wonder if they ever got a thank-you note from America's current and future rivals, who must have looked on with a mixture of shock, awe, and gratitude.
6. Martyrs in the Cause of Peace and Justice. A list of this sort should also take note of those who gave their lives in the service of peace and justice. In addition to soldiers who have fought for just causes, and leaders like Nelson Mandela who ended apartheid and avoided the civil war that many feared for South Africa, there are also a legion of diplomats and private citizens who sacrificed their lives--the ultimate gift--attempting to advance the cause of peace and understanding. The names are far too numerous to mention and some remain obscure, but I am thinking of heroic figures such as Raoul Wallenberg, Dag Hammarskold, Folke Bernadotte, the eight Jesuit priests murdered in El Salvador in 1989, Dorothy Stang, Rachel Corrie, papal envoy Michael Courtney, Francisco Mendes, and many, many others.
7. Generous Givers. No country today is really generous in providing development assistance, but credit should be given to those who devote a relatively large percentage of their national income to this task (at least compared to others). Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands head the list of aid donors as a percentage of national income, devoting between .8 to 1 percent of national income to this mission. The United States ranks 22nd, by the way, coughing up a measly .18 percent of gross national income.
8. Nuclear Weapons and the "Long Peace." Nuclear deterrence doesn't make war impossible, but its hard to argue that it has not been a formidable barrier to it. Unlike John Mueller, I think the Cold War could easily have gone "hot" without the sobering effects of nuclear weapons, even if both superpowers amassed far larger arsenals than they needed, and they are a major reason why the second half of the 20th century was much less bloody than the first half. And while we're talking about the "long peace," I'd give an honorable mention here to Mikhail Gorbachev and the "new thinkers" in Soviet foreign policy, whose initiatives were central to ending the Cold War itself, even though the end-result (i.e., the breakup of the Soviet Union) was not exactly what they had in mind.
9. The Post-war "Truth-tellers" in Germany. German power posed a problem from Europe from 1870 onward, and a fatal combination of flawed institutions, dangerous ideas, and-in the person of Adolf Hitler-a murderous individual, plunged Europe into two catastrophic wars. Yet in the aftermath of World War II, scholars, artists, and visionary leaders came together to confront Germany's past and revise the self-justifying history that had fueled its earlier misconduct. Had intellectuals in Germany acted in the 1950s as they did in the 1920s, and devoted their efforts to white-washing Germany's role in starting both wars and trying to deny responsibility for the Holocaust, the entire history of postwar Europe would have been different. Instead, historians like Fritz Fischer and Imanuel Geiss offered unvarnished and damning accounts of Germany's misdeeds, a process reinforced by other scholars like Jurgen Habermas and novelists like Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass. The idea that history should be "de-nationalized" has grown in other contexts as well-from the "New Historians" in Israel to men like Saburo Ienaga in Japan-and constitutes a potential barrier to the xenophobia that has caused so much suffering in the past. A nation may be a "group of people united by a shared mistaken view about the past," but correcting the self-serving myths that sow the seeds of future conflict is an invaluable gift.
10. The International Civil Aviation Organization. Even realists understand that institutions can help states with compatible interests coordinate their behavior and achieve more desirable outcomes, and anyone who boards an airplane benefits from the work of this relatively obscure organization, which oversees the complex arrangements that regulate air traffic in a world where the thousands of planes take off and land every day. Why do I include it today? Simple. If somebody wasn't managing global air traffic, how could Santa fly safely?
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I'm no great fan of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but you gotta admit his candor is refreshing. From last week, in the Jerusalem Post:
Israel is willing to sit down for talks with the Palestinians, but with no preconditions or further gestures, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Thursday evening, stressing that the most recent overture was a tactical and temporary move.
In practice, we have not been building for a year and a half, so why pretend," he said in an address at the Ariel University Center. "Like in soccer, you make tactical moves sometimes. It is clear to everyone that in ten months, we will be building again full force; anyone who understands anything knows this. . . ." The foreign minister proceeded to expound on the need to downplay the conflict with the Palestinians, which "must not be a central topic, neither [in Israel] nor [in the international arena]. Not everyone in the world is troubled by this problem, and our task is to diminish it, and not make it a central topic."
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What happened in Copenhagen? The answer is: not much. Facing a very real possibility of complete failure -- a two-year buildup to a cacophonous conference that ended in de facto deadlock -- a select group of major powers cobbled together a non-binding “agreement” to undertake various purely voluntary actions, aimed at an arbitrary target for limiting future atmospheric warming. As Greenpeace noted on its Twitter page: “2 years planning, 2 weeks negotiating = worse than half-assed deal in the last 2 hours. Climate change you can believe in.” And I assume you didn’t missed the symbolism of Obama leaving the conference a day early so he could get back to Washington before it snowed.
Environmental issues aren’t my main thing, you understand, but I can’t resist the urge to offer a few comments.
First, you shouldn’t be surprised by this outcome, especially if you’ve been reading this blog. As the Economist noted a week or so ago, “Climate change is the hardest political problem the world has ever had to deal with.” In addition to the scientific uncertainties (not about the fact of climate change, but about the impact of different policy responses), dealing with man-made climate change is a classic collective action problem. All countries would like to avoid the consequences of atmospheric warming, but they would also like someone else to pay the costs of addressing it. Furthermore, the worst negative consequences won’t be evenly distributed and won’t occur for several decades, which means that today’s leaders would have to impose costs on their citizens now in order to leave future generations better off. That’s do-able, but hardly a tempting prospect for most politicians. In addition, there is still no consensus on the best way to proceed: some states favor “cap and trade” systems while other prefer a straightforward “carbon tax.” Finally, the main polluters are in very different economic circumstances; the developed world created the problem but now wants to get rising powers like China and India to undertake potentially costly measures that could slow their own growth. Needless to say, that's not very attractive to Beijing or New Delhi. Toss in the reality that any agreement would be unwieldy, expensive, and rife with verification problems, and you have an issue that makes reforming health care here in the United States look absurdly simple by comparison.
Second, the outcome in Copenhagen does lend support for FP chief Moises Naim’s concept of “minilateralism.” If you can’t get 192 states to agree on a global agreement (and it sure looks like you can’t), then focus on getting the biggest economies (who are the biggest source of the problem and the states with the resources to help the others), and see if you can get some sort of agreement among them. Thus, an optimist could see the face-saving “deal” that emerged at the very end of the conference as the building block for a new initiative that would eschew a grand global bargain in favor of a more focused deal among the major powers.
Third, this episode offers another revealing glimpse at Obama’s diplomatic style; indeed, his entire approach to politics. A master of soaring rhetorical style, he sets ambitious goals and imposes short deadlines (remember when he said he wanted to get a two-state solution in his first term?). When those lofty goals (inevitably) turn out to be unreachable, he grabs what’s available (a flawed health care deal, more photo-op "diplomacy" in the Middle East, a compromise “surge” in Afghanistan, etc.), and talks about the need to keep “moving forward.”
The “glass half full” interpretation is that this approach avoids complete deadlock and helps Obama avoid the appearance (and maybe the reality) of complete and obvious failure. And in some cases—most notably health care—you end up with a reform that is better than having done nothing, even if it is far less than the American people deserve. Given the complexity of some issues -- such as climate change -- and the barriers to bold action that are central to America’s checks-and-balances, multiple veto-point system of government, this may be the best he/we can do.
But there’s a “half-empty” version of this story too. By setting too many lofty goals, and showing a too-ready willingness to cut deals in order to save face, Obama is teaching his opponents that he’s never going to walk away and that they can always get a better deal if they stonewall him and drag things out as long as they can. That’s a problem no matter who is doing it: the GOP, China, the Karzai government, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Iran. What makes it worse is Obama’s penchant for thrusting himself into the middle of negotiations at the wrong time, as he did over the City of Chicago’s Olympics bid and as he appears to have done in Copenhagen as well. (If climate change is really that important he should have been there longer; if it was clear that no deal was going to happen, maybe he shouldn’t have gone at all).
But what really worries me is that Obama is in fact making the best of a set of bad options, and that it still won’t be nearly good enough.
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"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large; I contain multitudes)." --Walt Whitman
Readers here know that I recommended that we not pay much attention to Barack Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, mostly because what mattered was not what he said -- we all know by now that he’s eloquent on such occasions -- but what he did.
Needless to say, the commentariat ignored this advice, with prominent pundits like Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, and George Packer praising Obama’s remarks for his Niebuhrian "Christian Realism." (In his New Yorker comment on the speech, Packer uses variations on the word "realism" four different times.) So having originally decided to ignore it, I decided I’d better go back and read it again (see Whitman quotation above).
There's no question that realists can find much to agree with in the speech. Instead of promising a "war to end all wars," he warned his listeners that "we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes." He also acknowledged that the use of force is sometimes "not only necessary but morally justified" and made it clear that his role as head of state is first and foremost "to protect and defend” the United States. Why? Because he must "face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people." Hard to think of a more "realist" notion than that. And surely realists would agree that his position is "a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason."
That said, other aspects of the speech were less consistent with realist thinking as well as less convincing in themselves. He suggested that the world "needed institutions to prevent another world war," even though the case that institutions can or have performed that role is weak. Institutions are useful tools, to be sure, and one can argue that the United Nations has performed valuable peace-keeping roles in a number of places, but institutions cannot prevent great powers from pursuing their interests and did relatively little to prevent another world war.
Instead, as Obama himself acknowledged, what has kept peace among the great powers over the past sixty years is mostly power. Here Obama gave full credit to the United States, saying that it "has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades." Most realists would agree -- but only up to a point. As Campbell Craig and Fredrik Logevall show in their excellent new book, America’s Cold War, the United States did play a positive role in stabilizing Europe after World War II and in containing possible Soviet expansion in that region afterwards. But they also show that America’s role in Indochina, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East was far more destructive, even though the U.S. leaders who conducted these policies undoubtedly thought they are serving a larger moral purpose as well.
Furthermore, despite his wise remarks about the human capacity for error, the limits of reason, and the like, it was still a speech that invoked the threat of “evil” to justify the use of force, and applied an implicit double standard to the conduct of the United States, its friends, and other powerful states.
This contradiction was most evident in his discussion of the need for "certain rules of conduct" regarding the use of force, and his call to "develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behavior." In particular, he wants to sanction "regimes that break the rules" and declared they "must be held accountable -- sanctions must exact a real price." He went on to say "those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flauted."
But although Obama said that "all nations -- strong and weak alike -- must adhere to standards that govern the use of force," he clearly didn't mean it. He was hardly endorsing international sanctions against the United States when it breaks existing "rules of conduct," as it did when it invaded Iraq in 2003, fired cruise missiles into Sudan in 1998, or engages in targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists (and sometimes kills innocent civilians in the bargain) today. Surely he was not proposing to sanction Israel for its refusal to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty or for its illegal colonization of the West Bank. Nor do I think he was suggesting that the international community hold China "accountable" for its absorption of Tibet.
One could argue that this part of the speech was eminently "realist" too -- the strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must. And despite his reminder that "evil exists," Obama acknowledged the possibility that fear of change and other sources of insecurity can lead to extreme actions, and that no one is immune to that temptation. "For we are fallible," he said, "We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptation of pride and power, and sometimes evil."
That passage was perhaps the most genuinely “realist” element in the speech. Like most liberals, Americans are prone to demonizing their supposedly "evil" adversaries and find it hard to admit that sometimes our own behavior isn't so very different. It's not just that other states have a "reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower," as Obama put it, the real problem is that some of that suspicion is warranted. Realists understand the moral distinctions can and should be drawn, but they also recognize that much harm is done not with openly evil intent, but rather through a combination of fear, stupidity, sloth, greed and narrow-mindedness. Insecurity is hardwired into the anarchic international system, and with that insecurity comes suspicion, competition, and the omnipresent possibility that smart and well-intentioned people will still make big mistakes. When great power is involved, even seemingly small acts of corruption or malfeasance can have horrific consequences.
In the end, that is why I still think we should pay less attention to what he said and focus on what he and his advisors do. In his first year in office, President Obama has made two critical decisions involving matters of war, peace and justice. The first is his decision to abandon the admirable principles he set forth in his Cairo speech in June, to tacitly accept the continued expansion of Israel's West Bank settlements, and to collude in a well-orchestrated assault on the Goldstone Report on war crimes in Gaza. The result will be to perpetuate precisely the sort of injustice that gives rise to very violence he deplored in his speech. The second is his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan -- sending 17,000 troops last spring and 30,000 more last month -- despite the continued absence of a compelling rationale or coherent strategy for success.
From Day One, Obama has shown that he is a thoughtful and intelligent leader who takes his responsibilities seriously and weighs decisions carefully. But in the end, what matters is not how long or hard he thinks or how well he talks. What matters is whether he makes the right decisions. And by that criterion, he's 0 for 2.
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As the United States prepares send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, in what I still regard as a futile effort at "state-building," two interesting items arrived in my in-box. The first is an opinion piece by former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami (now vice-president of the Toledo Center for Peace in Spain), who argues that Afghanistan's neighbors have a greater stake there than the United States, and that they are advancing those interests more effectively by relying primarily on diplomacy rather than military intervention. Money quote:
So, while the United States gets to play the "Ugly American" once again, the regional powers promote their interests in that war-torn country with a smiling face and away from the battlefield. America’s difficulties in Afghanistan -- and the serious problems it faces in harnessing Pakistan’s government to a more robust fight against the Taliban both at home and in Afghanistan -- provide an opportunity for these powers to attempt to shift the dynamics of the "Great Game" to their benefit.
In other words, Afghanistan's neighbors have successfully "passed the buck" to the United States -- getting Uncle Sam to do the dirty work and heavy lifting in Afghanistan -- and Washington has been foolish enough to accept that burden. It's too late now, but a smarter strategy would have been for Washington to focus on getting the regional powers to address these problems while it remained in the background, focusing primarily focused tasks (such as the capture or killing of al Qaeda members) for which we were uniquely equipped. My guess is that this approach is where the United States will end up once it realizes that the current "surge" isn’t working, so Ben-Ami's article might even prove to be prophetic.
The second item is a video report from the Guardian in Britain, which shows a group of U.S. Marine trainers working with some pretty hapless Afghan recruits. (One Marine says "I think if they introduced drug testing for the Afghan army, we would lose probably three-quarters to maybe eighty or eight-five percent of the army." It is sort of like watching an Afghan version of Stripes, except that this is in fact serious business and a critical ingredient of current U.S. strategy. The video is consistent with other published reports about the difficulties the U.S. faces in trying to create larger and more effective Afghan security forces, but it is obviously hard to know how representative a single short film might be. So you should view it with some skepticism, the same way you should view any official reports of our progress or anything you read in the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian itself, for that matter. But if it’s even remotely representative, it tells you why everyone from Secretary Gates on down understands that we are facing a multi-year, and maybe even multi-decade challenge there. Good thing we don't have any other foreign or domestic problems to address right now, and infinite resources to devote to this problem.
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday our distinguished and highly principled House of Representatives passed HR 2194, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA). The new measure is the brainchild of Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), and best one can say for it is that it is a foolish bit of political posturing. As Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now and Matt Duss at the Center for American Progress make clear, this act will do virtually nothing to change the Iranian government’s behavior or weaken the political grip of the clerics and Revolutionary Guards. (See also Gal Luft and Alireza Nader's 's FP pieces here and here.) Instead, it will undoubtedly cause a lot of suffering among ordinary Iranians and reinforce the widespread perception that Uncle Sam is indifferent to the sufferings of others. It will also complicate U.S. efforts to get stronger multilateral sanctions on Iran, and is therefore counterproductive to any broader effort to address Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And you may rest assured that when this new set of sanctions fails, hardliners will argue that "we've tried everything," and that we must therefore rely on other options (i.e., preventive war).
It's not like Congress was unaware of some of these counter-arguments -- for example, all four witnesses at a Tuesday hearing before the House National Security and Foreign Affairs subcommittee said they would vote against the legislation if given the option--but these expressions of sanity could not stop the stampede to folly. AIPAC endorsed the legislation (duh!), but so did J Street, the self-advertised "pro-peace, pro-Israel" lobby that appears to be trimming its sails more and more with each passing month. Needless to say, the act passed overwhelmingly (412-12, with four others voting "present"). No wonder Mark Twain once complained that Congress contains "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes." With maybe sixteen exceptions.
Popular protests continue to occur in Iran, raising new doubts about the future of the clerical/Revolutionary Guard regime. Because predicting if or when a given regime will fall is difficult-to-impossible, nobody really knows where this is all headed. Nonetheless, it seems clear that popular discontent with the current government is widespread and unlikely to go away anytime soon, unless somebody is foolish enough to attack them militarily, thereby generating a new surge of national unity and giving the regime an excuse to crack down even more.
This situation got me thinking about the implications of regime change there, and I'll confess that I end up somewhat torn. I'll bet a lot of foreign policy experts think it would be a good thing if the current Iranian regime were replaced by a genuine democracy, and preferably by one that wasn't overly theocratic. A more accountable and less ideological regime would be better on human rights grounds, and many people also assume that such a government would be less interested in the nuclear option, less hostile to Israel, less supportive of groups like Hezbollah, and on the whole less of a threat to other U.S. interests (such as Persian Gulf oil).
I'm not so sure. On the one hand, I agree that the current regime is chaotic, corrupt, and deplorable on human rights grounds (though far less brutal than some governments with which the United States has had close relations). The regime's treatment of women is deplorable and the crackdown following the bogus election last summer is indefensible, and its support for groups like Hezbollah is hardly consistent with U.S. interests. Judged on purely human rights grounds, a more democratic and/or liberal government would clearly be preferable.
But we should not assume that far-reaching political change in Iran would eliminate all sources of conflict between Iran and the United States (or the West). It would have little effect on the nuclear issue: Iran has been seeking nuclear energy (and possibly nuclear weapons) ever since the Shah, and election "runner-up" Mir Hossein Mousavi supports the government's demands to control the full nuclear fuel cycle and has openly criticized President Ahmadinejad's initial support for an proposal to have France and Russia convert Iran's LEU stockpile into safe fuel for Tehran's research reactor. Iran was a more expansionist power under the Shah than it has been as an "Islamic Republic,", and the Shah also supported insurgent groups in other countries when he thought it suited Iranian interests. Nor were earlier Iranian governments beacons of tolerance and support for basic human rights. Persian nationalism and Iranian national pride remain powerful forces within the country as well, which means that a truly democratic Iranian regime would be pressed to defend Iran's regional interests as vigorously as its power permits.
Moreover, the realist in me warns that a more responsive, efficient, and less ideological government in Tehran might challenge the United States in ways that nobody has yet considered. Why? Because a more effective and intelligent government would be able to mobilize Iran's considerable latent power potential much more effectively than the clerical regime has.
In terms of power potential, Iran is the only state in the Persian Gulf with the latent capacity to dominate the oil-rich Persian Gulf, especially now that the ill-fated U.S. invasion in 2003 has shattered Iraq's military power and political cohesion and enhanced Iranian influence in Baghdad. Iran's population (65 million) far exceeds Iraq (28 million), or Saudi Arabia (22 million Saudis), and Iran's GDP ($306 billion) -- despite poor economic decision making, endemic corruption, and foreign embargoes-is nearly four times larger than Iraq ($84 billion) and not far behind Saudi Arabia ($446 billion). Iran has large oil and gas reserves, a young and fairly well-educated population, some decent universities, and a favorable geographic position. If Iran ever began to realize its latent potential, therefore, it would be an even more formidable player in the region than it is today.
Imagine, for example, a political shift that brought to power the Iranian equivalent of a Deng Xiaopeng. Imagine that this new government adopted smarter economic policies, a far-sighted development strategy, and a more adroit diplomatic posture. Instead of an Iranian leadership that gives stupid and counterproductive speeches questioning the Holocaust, imagine an Iranian leader who conducted an adroit public relations effort designed to show how reasonable Iran was being in the face of "unjustified" U.S. pressure. In other words, imagine an Iran that no longer suffered from self-inflicted wounds, and that focused on converting its latent power potential into real capabilities.
My point is that we often forget that we have been dealing with an Iran that is much less powerful than we are, and much weaker than it would have been under more effective leadership. Those who press for "regime change" in Iran assume that this would produce a government whose policy preferences were more in line with ours, and that the major conflicts that now exist between Tehran and Washington would quickly evaporate. Maybe so, but it might also produce a more effective and capable government that could defend Iranian interests more effectively, even when they clashed with ours.
In particular, bear in mind that a key goal of U.S. grand strategy has been to prevent any single power from dominating the oil-rich Persian Gulf. In other words, the United States has sought to maintain a balance of power in the region and make sure that there is no "regional hegemon" there. By contrast, Iran would undoubtedly prefer an imbalance of power in its favor, which is precisely the sort of situation the United States opposes.
This is not to say that American-Iranian rivalry is inevitable no matter who is in power in Tehran (or Washington), or that Obama's efforts to reopen dialogue with Iran's current government is misplaced. It is rather to suggest that reform (or even revolution) in Iran is not a magic bullet that will suddenly cause all sources of friction to disagree, and to raise the possibility that a smarter and more capable Iran might turn out to be more of a challenge than the government we are dealing with today.
So be careful what you wish for. (Now there's a good realist precept!) The triumph of the "Green Movement" in Iran might be desirable on purely moral grounds, but there is little reason to suppose that it would solve all (or even most) of our problems in the region. And that's all the more reason to resist the temptation to interfere within Iran itself: haven't recent events taught us that toppling foreign governments can lead to lots of unintended and undesirable consequences?
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.